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November 29, 2006

(Late) Fall Flavors

Amanda Magnano
Weeeellll, this one's kind of on the tail of the of the season for which it was intended, but I couldn't wait another year to post it. It's one of my proudest creations for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because it's still the highest scoring dish in the history of Iron Chef Chicago. The only thing I still struggle with somewhat is the squash chips. The silpat/oven method works pretty well, but they're very touchy. I have to believe there's an easier way. If anybody has any suggestions, I'm all ears.

In any case, this was a dish I created for Iron Chef Winter Squash. It was actually one of the dishes on the chopping block when we were deciding which ideas to roll with, so mad, mad props to Faithful Sous Kirsten for reassuring me that there isn't a soul on the face of the planet who doesn't love butter sauce. It's a high-maintenance dish, and it involves assembling three last-minute components, but it's completely worth it.

Dominic Armato
1 large butternut squash
2 shallots, minced
¼ C. white wine
½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. heavy cream
½ C. unsalted butter
½ C. sliced shiitake mushrooms
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
8 large scallops
2 Tbsp. canola oil
1 oz. caviar

Crispy Squash and Scallop Napoleon with Butternut
Butter Sauce
Serves 4 as an appetizer

Preheat the oven to 250º while you're prepping the squash. When selecting your squash, you need a big, solid chunk for the squash chips. It's best to pick one with a nice, long neck about 4" in diameter. Remove the stem and peel the squash. Using a mandoline set to about 1mm thickness, slice 20 discs from the neck of the squash and trim them into 3" diameter circles. It's absolutely critical that the discs be of uniform thickness, and unless your knife skills are borderline superhuman, a mandoline is the only way it's going to happen. You'll only use 16 of the crisps, but they're extremely fragile and it's a good idea to make extras. Sandwich the discs between two silpats and bake for 45 minutes to one hour, checking frequently towards the end to be sure they don't overcook and take on a burned flavor. They are done when they are dried and ever so slightly brown in color. They'll crisp further as they cool.

Meanwhile, cut the remaining squash into large chunks, add to a large pot, seeds and all, cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer, uncovered, for an hour. Strain the mixture through a chinois or other fine-meshed strainer, pressing against the sides, and save the resulting squash stock.

The next three items require a little timing mojo, since you ideally want them all to be ready at the same time. The one that will hold the best and can easily be reheated, however, is the mushrooms. Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat, add the sliced shiitakes and cook until the mushrooms are nicely softened. Salt and pepper to taste, then remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, get the butternut butter sauce going. Add the shallots, wine, salt and 1 C. of the squash stock to a saucepan, and reduce down to about ⅓ of a cup, stirring constantly as the mixture thickens. When finished, it'll be gooey and caramel-colored. Add the cream, and continue to cook for about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and whisk in the ½ C. of butter, a couple tablespoons at a time. Adjust the salt, and remove from the heat so it doesn't separate. If it does separate, however, don't panic. Just boil up a little more wine and cream, and then whisk the entire broken sauce back into the new base.

The last step before assembly is to sauté the scallops. Pat them dry and season them lightly with some salt and pepper. Heat the canola oil in a sauté pan over high heat until hot, but not smoking. Sear the scallops, turning once, until they're slightly browned on the outside and just done in the middle, about 1-2 minutes per side.

To assemble, slice the scallops in half lengthwise, then stack squash crisp, a bit of sautéed mushroom, half scallop, crisp, mushroom, scallop, placing two of these stacks to a plate. Or, if you're feeling particularly brave, go for one monster tower. Either way, top with the butternut butter sauce and a dollop of caviar, garnish wish some chives, and get 'em on the table... they don't hold well.

November 27, 2006


Dominic Armato
It starts here.

Of course, I'm a long, long way from being the first to champion this particular cause, but it's one that's near and dear to my heart, and it's time to give the movement a name and make it official. There are people out there who desperately need our help. People like my aunt and uncle. They're wonderful folks, I love them to death and they know their way around the kitchen. But as I discovered this past Thursday, they are among the countless victims of the dreaded Problem.

The problem, of course, is that the drawers of our nation's kitchens are choked with crappy knives... old, nicked, flimsy, serrated, dull and otherwise useless cutlery that makes food preparation challenging at best and impossible at worst. Crappy knives mangle the most perfect tomatoes, turn beautiful fresh herbs into a bruised paste, hack helplessly at seemingly indestructible root vegetables, and when they slip... as they always do... send the poor souls who wield them to the hospital in droves. As such, on this twenty-seventh of November, two-thousand and six, I hereby announce the formation of H.A.C.K.

Humans Against Crappy Knives

As with any similar organization, we do not seek to shame or ridicule those who are cutlery-impaired, but rather to reach out and help with understanding and compassion through the mantra of One Good Chef's Knife. One Good Chef's Knife is the single most important piece of cookware in the kitchen, and yet is one of the most frequently overlooked. One Good Chef's Knife will easily handle 95% of even the most creative home cook's cutlery needs, and do a perfectly adequate job for the remaining 5%. You certainly can spend an obscene amount of money on One Fricking Awesome Chef's Knife, but the budget-conscious lines of some quality manufacturers (such as J.A. Henckels or Wusthof-Trident) ensure that One Good Chef's Knife can easily be found for $40 or less. One Good Chef's Knife may not be as impressive (or imposing) as the similarly priced 12 piece set of crappy knives, but it's infinitely more useful. It is from One Good Chef's Knife that all good things in the kitchen flow.

Go forth. Spread the word of H.A.C.K. The work is its own reward.

November 23, 2006

Rumors Of My Death...

Criminy... I almost forgot how to do this.

It's been a while. Way, way too long, in fact. The craziness of late summer and early fall only got more crazy, I became further distracted by other goings-on, and the next thing I know there's suddenly a two month gap in a blog I'd been updating almost daily for the better part of the year. Then, just as suddenly, the blogging bug bit me again this evening. I've missed it. A lot.

Of course, this is the kind of navel-gazing you couldn't care less about. Judging from the E-mails I've received recently, all anybody would like to know is if I'm still alive, if I ever intend to write again, and if so, when.

Yes, yes, and now.

But in an effort to both pace myself and provide a more predictable blog-reading experience, I'm going to take a crack at a regular posting schedule and see how it goes. Monday, Wednesday and Friday seems both appropriate and realistic, though we'll consider this a probationary period during which I'm open to suggestion. But my drive seems to have returned and I have a two month backlog of material, so I'm confident this'll go swimmingly and you can expect regular posting three days a week for the foreseeable future. Or at least until I become a father next month, at which time I'll either disappear again or inexplicably take a keen interest in vegetable purees.

Sorry for the unexpected hiatus, folks. Hopefully it'll be the last.